BY LINDA MONDOUX
Even Patrick Connor was surprised to see the number of trails so close to home — and he’s the executive director of the Ontario Trails Council, a volunteer organization that promotes the development, management and use of recreational trails.
Just seeing it all on a map, and how many trails are linked to bus transportation, shows that trails can — and should be — viewed as more than paths for recreational walking and cycling. “They’re an alternate form of transportation for people who don’t have a vehicle,” Connor says. “They can get people to work, and get kids to school without a personal vehicle.”
Connor, the lone staff member at Ontario Trails Council, which relies on community groups and members of the public to help it compile online information on the province’s 88,000 kilometres of trails, is passionate about trails, be they through a forest, along a waterfront or through an urban park. He has travelled to communities across the province to spread the word about the importance of trails, and how they are the lowest-cost recreational service a municipality can offer.
“Building trails is less expensive than arenas and pools,” Connor says. “And they are low-cost to maintain. They are also open to all.”
With their many health benefits — both physical and mental — Connor wants to ensure they really are accessible to everyone, which is why the council features a list of inclusive trails on its website. “Accessibility is mandated under the Ontario Disabilities Act, but as a civilized society, it’s something we would want to do regardless,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “Inclusive trails — this is the standard we should be aiming for.”
Of the 131 trails their managers (usually municipalities) have entered into the trails council database and deemed to be inclusive, 67 have complete wheelchair access and 64 have partial access. The published list of inclusive trails
represents about eight per cent of all Ontario trails, though Connor acknowledges there are probably more that have not been added to the list by trails managers.
Eight per cent is not great. But it’s a start, says Connor, who is frustrated that provincial budget cuts are hampering the ability of municipalities to develop any walking and biking trails, let alone those that can accommodate people with mobility or vision challenges.
Developing trails cheaper than building arenas
“The barriers to outdoor access are real,” Connor says, naming curbs and signposts among the obstacles. “Then when you come to trails, it’s just as complicated, because of vehicular movement. We would hope that every trail would be accessible, but unfortunately it’s a resource issue.”
People who ride bikes have been fighting for safer roads and trails to travel on for years, he says, and all they hear is that there’s no money. “If people who ride bikes can’t get safe infrastructure, it’s even harder for people with disabilities.”
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed by the provincial government in 2005, sets out a schedule for the public sector and businesses to meet in order that Ontario be accessible by 2025 in terms of communication, transportation and the built environment. That includes accessible arenas, pools and trails.
While Connor says municipalities know how important trails are for a community, it’s always back to money. Depending on the location, a paved trail can cost as much as $54,000 per kilometre, he says. And with the province dealing with a massive deficit, that means there is less money trickling down to municipalities, sending trail development near the bottom of the budget wish list.
In times of budget cuts, when no one is getting a new pool or arena, Connor says it only makes sense to develop trails. “At least give the people something!” he says.
Of the inclusive trails described as “completely wheelchair accessible,” Toronto ranks high on the list, with accessible trails found along the meandering East Don River, through the stately neighbourhood of Forest Hill, along the Black Creek Valley — even at the beach.
Lorene Bodiam, Advocate for People with Disabilities in the city’s parks, forestry and recreation division, says the city for the past three years has been making a concerted effort to promote and encourage people with disabilities and special needs to participate in the wide range of healthy activities on offer in Toronto. As a result, there are at least three dozen parks identified as accessible parks that people with disabilities can enjoy in Toronto.
Toronto parks map makes it easy
Bodiam is especially proud of the city’s new downloadable park trails maps, which tell users everything from whether they will be walking or riding on sand, a wooden boardwalk or a hard surface, to which parks have year-round accessible washrooms and where the closest TTC stop is, including which ones have elevators.
“And for the first time, all parks have street names and addresses,” Bodiam says, adding that this new feature alone had the phone ringing off the hook with people calling to say thank you. “But it wasn’t us,” she says of the parks and rec department. “It was the EMS guys.”
What Bodiam and her crew hadn’t realized until the phone started ringing was that the TTC Wheel-Trans service for people with disabilities needed an address before they could drop off their riders. The thing is, Toronto’s parks didn’t have an address posted in front of them. Unbeknown to the parks department, the city’s Emergency Medical Services division decided to do something about it and the street address signage went up. When Bodiam started getting all those compliments for the park signs, she decided to find out who was behind the move and found it was EMS. “It was a huge wakeup call on how one division improved something for the betterment of another,” Bodiam says.
The new accessible park maps, which are now a matte finish to cut down on glare, are among the improvements that came out of an exhaustive 2005-2008 research initiative called Getting Services Right for Torontonians with Disabilities. Bodiam and Elvin Dobani, a research specialist with the city’s parks and recreation department, led the initiative, whose recommended improvements have gone a long way toward the city’s goal of increasing program participation by 1,000 per cent.
And while Bodiam is proud of the 10 areas of accessibility improvement on the parks map itself, including proper colour contrast for those with vision challenges, she is already looking ahead to ways of making it even better. “To do it properly, you want all your parks addressed and in future, GPS the landmarks in them,” Bodiam tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “This all has the ability to open up the world to people.”
Help spread the word through trail reviews
According to the trails council, Southern Ontario’s Greenbelt has Canada’s largest network of hiking trails, with many links to the Bruce Trail — the oldest and longest footpath in Canada and home to many heritage features worth checking out. Many trails take you right down to the waterfront, with some municipalities building wheelchair-accessible ramps directly to the beach.
Collingwood, hailed as one of Ontario’s most accessible small towns, constructed a ramp right to the bay near the old lifeguard station at the Sunset Point waterfront park. Much of the town’s 60 kilometres of trails connecting the core and waterfront with various parts of Collingwood are accessible to people in wheelchairs or scooters, and you’ll find them listed on the Ontario Trails inclusive list.
To help the trails council spread the word on the large inventory of trails that does exist, Connor encourages trail managers to promote their trails by adding them to the council’s website. And trail users, including those checking out the list of inclusive trails, are urged to write reviews to encourage others to get out and enjoy them, and to point out any issues so they can be addressed.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — May 2012